A Clean Start: Atlanta United and the Expansion of the MLS
What: Atlanta United finalizes the process of joining Major League Soccer (MLS) after almost a decade of preparations.
Why it matters: The debut of the new franchise can be used as a guide to understanding the inner workings of first division soccer in the U.S. and the requirements to join the league.
Atlanta has succumbed to the soccer boom and, as of last weekend, already has a team that aspires to position itself quickly. When the referee whistled the start of the match, a dream that was born almost ten years ago finally became reality—one that can serve as a guide to promote the popular sport in the United States.
In 2008, Arthur Blank, billionaire co-founder of The Home Depot, saw a great investment opportunity in MLS for the city of Atlanta. After his first approach to build a new stadium for the nascent team was turned down by the league, Blank withdrew his offer in 2009, but not his interest.
As the owner of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, Blank kept a close eye on both the growing Hispanic population in Atlanta and on companies interested in becoming investors, maintaining his solid presence on the periphery of the MLS.
And thus began an intermittent flirtation between the entrepreneur and the league for the future of the largest metropolitan area of the U.S. without a first division soccer team. In May 2013, the Georgia Department of Economic Development authorized a $30 million bond issue to finance the purchase of land for what would eventually become known as Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A year later, on April 16, 2014, Blank celebrated MLS’s approval to join the league's Eastern Conference.
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In Major League Soccer, teams and player contracts are collectively owned by the same league. The owners ̶ or co-owners, rather ̶ function as shareholders in the league and as operators of their respective brands in the sports and marketing areas. This allows a homogeneous development of the league, which applies internal norms such as salary caps, player development, and signing of proven star players worldwide. At the same time, each team develops its own strategies to flourish in their city and attract fans and sponsors both inside and outside the United States.
As a result, and with the Mercedes-Benz Stadium project already underway, the next challenge for Blank was clear: to attract the interest of local fans for 'the other football sport' in a city flagged as a “lazy sports town” ̶ a city without a large active interest in professional sports, which translates into low ticket sales ̶ and supervise the construction of a competitive squad with the goal of reaching the play-offs in its first season.
For the first objective, it was the community itself that allied with Blank. Graphic designer Matt Stigall founded the Terminus Legion fan group to support local soccer at all levels. Armed with the history of the city and its brotherhood with the Falcons, Stigall and Terminus began a campaign to attract fans to the nascent team. By December 2015, more than a year before its league debut, 29,000 fans had already committed to buying season tickets.
To cover the soccer aspect, Brit Darren Eales was named club sport president in 2014. Since 2010, the former professional player with an economics degree from Brown University has also served as director of football administration at England's Premiere League club Tottenham Hotspur. As if that weren’t enough, the club also hired renowned former US national team player Carlos Bocanegra as technical director.
Using all the resources at their disposal, Eales and Bocanegra focused on solidifying the squad. By taking advantage of $60 million training facilities located just 15 miles from Atlanta, and using the Designated Player Rule (which allows teams to hire certain players outside the salary cap), plus borrowing players from clubs such as México’s Tijuana, Argentina’s Vélez Sarsfield, Italy’s Torino, and Tottenham itself, the idea of a squad capable of reaching the top places in its conference began to take shape.
To round off the operation, former Barcelona coach and Argentina national team player Gerardo “Tata” Martino was named the club’s first head coach in September 2016. Tata was charged with supervising the team's operations, giving it a style of its own, and making it attractive to fans, thus becoming the last foundation stone put into place for the first division team to debut in the so-called 'Capital of the South.'
On opening day of the 2017 MLS season, after almost a decade of preparation, Arthur Blank finally saw the Atlanta United run onto the field at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Bobby Dodd Stadium – which will be the team’s home field until the Mercedes-Benz stadium opening against Kaká’s Orlando City on July 30th. The club’s season opener against the New York Red Bulls was held before more than 55,000 fans and hundreds of thousands more watching on television, and enjoyed the support of four different fan groups, including the Terminus Legion.
Atlanta United’s first official goal was scored by Argentine Yamil Asad, son of the iconic Omar Asad de Vélez, nicknamed 'The Turk'. And although the club lost 2-1 in the final minutes of the game, Blank saw this as another minor mishap on his way to conquering the MLS. As the official twitter account of the club said: "It’s not a stat. It’s a statement."